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In the centre of the panel the Archangel Michael is shown upon a red horse with gold wings. Michael’s face is also red. He is clothed in golden armour, wearing a crown and blowing on a trumpet. He holds a rainbow above his head, along with a closed Gospel in his left hand. His right hand also holds a censer and a lance with which he is pinning down the devil in a watery abyss. The destruction of a city – representing Babylon, the ‘world’ (cf. Rev. 18:21) - can also be found in the water, with miniature buildings collapsing in the waves. Above the main scene in the top centre of the panel we see a youthful Christ Emmanuelle (Logos) surrounded by clouds symbolising the celestial sphere. Before him is a throne (hetoimaisia, see below) with a Gospel and a Cross. The inscription at the top of the panel reads: ‘Terrible Dreadful, Powerful Warlord of the Heavenly Tsar Chief-Commander Michael’. On the two vertical borders of the panel are saints – the scratches on the surface of the panel make their inscriptions difficult to decipher, but their vestments tell us that they are bishops.
The iconography derives from a number of sources, but the main text is Revelation 12:7-12, which describes an apocalyptic war between heaven and hell, with Michael defeating the devil and casting him into the sea:
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought… And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world - he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God… Rejoice then, O heaven and you that dwell therein! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!’
The throne at the top of the panel in the celestial sphere also has apocalyptic significance. It is known in Greek as the hetoimasia, or ‘prepared throne’, and represents the throne of the Last Judgement. The rainbow above the Archangel (which is also echoed above Christ) symbolises the covenant with God and refers to Revelation 10:1: ‘Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire.’ The inscription above Michael is from Hebrews 1:7 and again explains the red colour of his face, which is burning with divine fire: ‘Who makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire’. The inscription next to the censer can be translated as: ‘from the censer your fragrance as poured upon the whole world’ (cf. Rev. 8; 2 Cor. 2:14). In the inscription above the Gospel in Michael’s left hand we find an allusion to Rev. 14:6: ‘The Word of God came forth into the cosmos'. At the bottom of the panel beneath the destroyed city is an inscription from Psalm 9:6: ‘The enemy have vanished in everlasting ruins; their cities thou hast rooted out; the very memory of them has perished.’
The iconography is Russian in origin and first appears in the 16th century when there was growing interest in, and anticipation of, the apocalypse – and it has become a popular subject for icon-painters ever since. An early version from the 16th century carved from cypress can be seen in the State Historical Museum in Moscow (fig. a).
Stylistically, our icon can be compared to an 18th – 19th century work of the same subject from the collection of Mikhail de Buar that was painted in Vyg in Northern Russia (fig. b). It is possible that our icon was also painted in a workshop in Vyg.